Can the spirit of a Catalonian Vermouth bar ever be recreated in North London? That’s the question wine expert Mike Turner asks. He recalls his first experience of a Vermouth bar in Barcelona, gets enthusiastic about it in his customary way, then wonders whether he can recreate the drink and the atmosphere in La Ferme, a new restaurant he has opened in North London’s Primrose Hill district.
Mike has found that Vermouth still needs a full-on hand sell at the table, despite how trendy it has become on the back bar. So will he be able to dust off the bottles and make it work as a bottomless brunch drink? Take it away Mike.
I had this thing going with my best mate and our better halves for a few years. Every year, early June-ish, we’d pick a city in Europe and head off for a long weekend. The kicker was, we’d do the same city for three years on the spin. Idea is that first year you nail all the touristy stuff, second year as much of the cultural stuff as possible, and third year you can pick and chose and just relax in a city you know fairly well.
We picked Barcelona for the first trip, and as most of us had been there before we skipped the touristy stuff and cracked straight into being culture vultures. And for the four of us, that meant one thing on the list for day one: a food tour.
We found this company called Culinary Backstreets (highly recommended if you’re ever in town) and our guide proceeded to take us straight into Gracia, to go sifting through the local markets and bars. We munched down on Tuna tataki, snails, all kinds of Jamon Iberico and Serrano, and gulped down dry wines, sherries, and even tried our hand at drinking out the porron.
Somewhere along the way we stumbled into a dirty old boozer full of old fellas chain smoking, munching down on sardines, and shouting at the 1970s TV in the corner showing the football. It was my first time in a Vermouth bar, and I loved it!
Ok, I didn’t love the chain smoking bit, I started having flashbacks to glass collecting in my Pheonix Nights-style club I used to work in as a teenager up north. But the Vermouth? What is this stuff? And where has it been all my life?
It’s a simple serving of a bottle of Vermouth in the middle of the table with a couple of soda syphons, so you mix your own measure. Throw in a plate of anchovies and some olives and you’re off to the races. I was hooked and visit that exact same bar every time I can when I’m in Barcelona.
I’ve just opened a restaurant in Primrose Hill called La Ferme with a couple of friends. We’ve got a partnership on the go with Deutz Champagne, which in the UK is brought in by Gonzalez Byass. As part of the deal they wanted a couple of extra skews on the wine list from them, which I thought was fair enough. We’re a French restaurant, so putting a couple of bottles of the top-drawer Alsace producer, Zind Humbrecht, on the list is hardly a problem. But what else?
I scrolled down their list…and then I saw it. La Copa Vermouth. Done!
But unfortunately I’ve not really thought it through. Those bottles of Vermouth are still sat proudly on the shelves. Years of Martini Rosso and Cinzano Bianco, although very different in style, have left Vermouth with a slightly funny reputation. It’s very much an unknown quantity to a lot of drinkers, and is currently just another line on the list that needs a full-on hand sell.
But it’s the old Field of Dreams thing for me. “If you build it, they will come.” The Catalan Vermut experience will be going on the menu for weekend brunches…well…once I’ve found where to buy some soda syphons anyway.
Tom Holt, owner and winemaker at Paso Primero in Somontano in the north end of Catalunya is willing to take on the challenge too. A Plumpton College graduate, he’s renting vines and winery space primarily to make dry wines, but fell in love with Vermouth (known as Vermú in these parts) as such an integral part of local culture. Every meeting is held at a bar with a glass of the good stuff.
He’s blended his house wines together, sweetened it with grape caramel, and fortified with grape spirit. The base is about as ‘wine’ as he could make it. In his own words “we then threw in some wormwood and bitters and started from there”. His aim was for a drinking vermouth, like the ones he and his mates in the area sink. And for a push you add a slice of orange (never lemon or lime!) and cut it with tonic or soda. And Robert’s your mother’s brother.
You can talk to Tom about his Vermouth using the links on his website – http://www.paso-primero.com/pasovermu/
You can also see how we’re getting on at La Ferme Primrose Hill by following us on Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/lafermelondon/